Mascarpone Chicken

I hope you won’t think me immodest if I say I can roast a serious chicken. Because, ahem, I can.

The art of chicken roasting is a lifelong project and all, so maybe my chickens aren’t the best they can be (yet); and it could be that half of the knock-you-off-your-chairness of my roast chickens owes to their being Podere di Melo chickens, but I nonetheless think my roast chickens are cause for immodesty.  And unchecked gluttony too, since Jim and I are liable to polish off a whole bird whenever we roast one.

Usually, I keep it simple with roast chicken: some lemon, butter, salt and pepper—and into the oven.  I’m always in love with the outcome, and it’s hard to want for anything different.  Except, of course, if there’s cheese involved.

Mascarpone cheese in fact, and how could anyone resist that?  There’s herbs too, and even the tiniest bit of olive oil, and lots of salt and pepper.  And if you follow the recipe, I promise it will be a serious chicken, with skin so crisp it crackles, and cheese hiding underneath it, lush and herb-y.  There’s more cheese than can be stuffed under the chicken, so halfway through the roasting process, you spoon the uncooked cheese all around the chicken.  It makes a creamy, curd-like sauce.  If you’ve ever had milk-braised pork, you know what the sauce will taste like, and it’s okay if you need to leave right now to procure a chicken.

Don’t fret if you’ve never spatchcocked a chicken before (and don’t skip this step, spatchcocking allows for every inch of the skin to crisp up into a delicious golden brown).  All you need is a good pair of kitchen shears (or a good handle on your sharpest knife).  You cut out the backbone, and then place the chicken cavity-side down on the cutting board.  Press down with a heavy hand to break the breast-bone, so that the chicken lies flat.  Ta-da!  You’re done.  It can seem a little brutal the first time, backbone cutting and breast-bone breaking, but let’s not forget that we are eating the chicken already, so we might as well prepare the thing right. I imagine if I were to be roasted and feasted upon, I’d want to look like this:

Roast chickens can be a tough thing for families—one roast chicken never seems to feed enough people—but in this recipe, a little goes a long way.  Jim and I couldn’t finish our pieces, no matter how hard we tried (and normally we put away a whole one).  It was so luscious and filling, one chicken could certainly feed four.  But better yet, you could make it for one, and have a lot of leftovers.

Mascarpone and Herb Stuffed Chicken

serves 4

for the filling

3 garlic cloves, minced
8 oz mascarpone cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
small handful of oregano
small handful of parsley
small(er) handful of thyme

for the chicken

1 chicken, any size, though to feed 4 you’ll need about one of about 4-5 pounds
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Combine garlic, mascarpone, eggs, parmigianno, herbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.
Cut out backbones from chicken with kitchen shears. Pat chicken dry, then spread flat, cavity side down, on a cutting board. With a heavy hand, press down at the middle of the breasts until you hear the breast-bone break. Cut two slits in the chicken skin, in the creases between the thighs and the breasts.

Sprinkle each chicken with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. To loosen the skin, gently slide your finger between skin and flesh of the breast, starting at the top. Slide your finger between the skin and flesh of the legs by going through the slits you made (be careful not to tear skin). Using a small spoon, slide 2/3 cup ricotta mixture under skin, using a finger outside of skin to spread filling over meat of breast, thighs, and drumsticks. Tuck the wing tips under. Drizzle olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Place chicken in a well oiled roasting pan, skin side up.

Reserve remaining filling.

Bake chickens in middle of oven 30 minutes, then spoon remaining filling around chicken. Continue baking until chicken is just cooked through and instant read thermometer reads about 165F, about 20 minutes more. Let chickens stand 10 minutes, then cut each into quarters. Serve with cheese.

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Simple tomato salad.

When I first started to throw dinner parties, just a few years ago now, I would work myself into such a tizzy over the damn things, overextending myself, liable to melt into a pool of nervous tears halfway through.  I needed to make enough food to feed an army, in the vain hope that everyone would be so enraptured by my talents that they’d eat until it was all gone.  I chose recipes that were vastly above my skill level, deciding on them before even hitting the market. There’d be hard-to-find ingredients hailing from Asia, or Morocco; cheeses I was supposed to use though I’d never tried them (and had no sense of their potency). And when something would go wrong—I couldn’t find the ingredient or hated the cheese—I would turn into a ball of nerves, believing there was nothing I could do, that I didn’t have any other recipes to turn to.

Thankfully, those times are past.  Lots of dinner parties, and problems, later, I’ve learned that you go to market without a set plan, with your head full of possibilities.  I still follow recipes, but loosely.  I keep a pantry full of basic ingredients—for a basic vinaigrette, a basic sauce—and I revert to the simplest food whenever a problem arises (or even, before.)  After a few years of chefs and cookbooks drilling simplicity into my head, I’ve finally come around.

The lovely thing is, simple food doesn’t have to taste simple.  Duh. But I think that fact eludes most fledgling cooks, entering a world of complicated techniques and endless cuisines.  It eluded me, that’s for sure.  I think I picked complicated recipes because I couldn’t bear the thought of screwing up simple, while making a mistakes in advanced cooking were easily shrugged off.  Simple can be scary.  But simple food is worth learning.

Especially in the summer, when you don’t want to spend too much time cooking (I certainly prefer swimming), and when you can take full advantage of the tomatoes you (or your magical elves) grow in the garden, and when even the measliest herb garden will do its part.  During the dog days of summer, simple isn’t just best, it’s the only option.  This simple tomato salad is a must too, or at least it was for me, because I got to spend a lazy summer day driving around the pretty countryside along the Delaware river, picking up tomatoes down the road, and a fancy goat cheese at the market; to come home and feel very accomplished while I picked French sorrel and herbs from my little potted garden.

I used a variety of tomatoes; some from down the road, some from the little gourmet shop where I got the cheese, and one from a fancy grocery store.  We did a blind tasting before making the salad and it was hard to judge these tomatoes, they were so different — though surprisingly, the fancy grocery store won by a small margin. (They did cost about 4 dollars per small tomato: don’t judge me people, I knew full-well it was ridiculous!).  I also used a variety of herbs: lemon thyme, a few leaves of peppermint, basil, parsley, a load of chives, and some very biting sorrel.  The goat cheese, a pepper crusted capricchio, was a perfect addition; it made the watery juice of the tomatoes taste creamy and it tempered the bite of sorrel.  Pick a goat cheese that  packs a load of creaminess and some sort or herb or spice crust is a nice.  And if you don’t have an herb garden, you can just use whatever herbs are on your shopping list, two of them at minimum, because without the variety of herbs, you risk your good, simple salad turning bored.  We ate this with a chicken slathered with marsacapone that practically knocked me off my chair, which I’ll write about next, promise.  It was one of my favorite meals I’ve made, summery and, duh, simple.

Simple Tomato Salad

serves 2-3

3-4 heirloom or garden tomatoes, tasted for quality
small bunch sorrel leaves (or watercress or arugula)
handful of mixed herbs, such as mint, basil, lemon thyme, and chives
soft goat cheese, preferably with a pepper crust
balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
good quality olive oil, for drizzling
fleur de sel, or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Slice tomatoes into thick slices and season with a bit of salt.  Leave in a colandar to drain for 15 minutes.  Toss them around so any excess water comes off, then arrange them on a platter.  Tuck the sorrel leaves under and around the tomatoes.  Tear or chop up the herbs and scatter over tomatoes.  Crumble the goat cheese over tomatoes.  Drizzle balsamic and olive oil over the tomatoes and season to taste with fleur de sel and fresh black pepper.